Title: Black Metal: Beyond the Darkness
Editor: Tom Howells
Publisher: Black Dog
This also appeared at The Liminal.
It was interesting how on first delving into Black Metal: Beyond the Darkness, the new Tom Howells-edited book from Black Dog Publishing, I thought it was something of a mess: a mess of styles and architecture, a jumble of academic long-thinking and the more upfront responses of fanzine writers and scene-riders, people who had been there from the beginning. But having put it down for a few days now, I realise the fault was mine, a symptom of the way black metal (I’m going to resist the urge to follow suit and make it proper noun) has become enshrined and, aesthetically at least, entombed in some cold coffee-table hell. Looking back into my own experience as a listener, what I wanted from black metal was something Other, something remaindered, escaping the neat confines of canonisation and explication. So while there is a case for suggesting the book is a bit on the slight side, what it does achieve in its melding of styles and wide-ranging use of sources is to sidestep the twin curses of pure aestheticisation and legitimation. And, thanks to some fantastic imagery, it restores some of that cold glee – inspired by the power of the iconography, the raw pleasure of the music, and for me anyway, divorced from the horrors of the ‘founding myths’, black metal’s soft camp underbelly.
What any book of this nature has to confront, of course, is precisely the power of those ‘founding myths’: the suicide of Mayhem vocalist Per Yngve ‘Dead’ Ohlin, one of the originators of the classic corpsepaint style in 1991; Euronymous opening Helvete, the record shop in Oslo that became a gathering place for the so-called ‘Black Circle’ and the base for the music label Deathlike Silence Productions; the huge number of church arsons (more than 50 over a 4 year period) perpetrated throughout Norway; and the vortex at the centre of everything, Euronymous’s murder at the hands of Varg Vikernes in August 1993. It’s not difficult to see why the events have had such a strong hold on the imagination, but essentially, these events have come to stand for black metal, trapping the genre in a time capsule; they’ve also allowed for propagation of the tired cliches of purity, the yawn-inducing eugenics of genre.
Gorgoroth by P. Beste
What Black Metal: Beyond the Darkness seeks to do then, is acknowledge but undercut these ‘founding myths’ (what Brandon Stosuy rightly calls a ‘convenient fiction’) by tracing the history beyond this spurious ground zero to Venom, Bathory, Hellhammer and beyond to show how numerous bands from different countries contributed to the shape and form of black metal as we know it today. Nathan T. Birk’s piece ‘South of Helvete (And East of Eden)’ is exemplary in referencing Helvete but goes on to show how the Greek, Romanian and Polish death and black metal scenes were equally as fecund and influential in forging the black metal sound. Capsule pieces on the likes of Russian band Skyforger contribute to this gradual widening of the scope of the scene. The book also does a good job of focusing on the current scene – particularly the burgeoning US black metal scene (USBM) which has exploded in the last few years, and contains some of the most experimental and downright exciting music being produced at the moment. Brandon Stosuy’s pieces ‘A Blaze in the North American Sky’ (formerly printed in Believer magazine) and the excerpts from his forthcoming oral history of black metal, both trace the scene’s history. In essence, the rise of USBM is part of an old American story – the allure of the frontier, and the primal power of the landscape. It could also be said to have something to do with a continuing need to identify with and sever ties with the older histories of Europe – part of the reason why the USBM ‘sound’ is at once recognisably black metal and yet something other and hugely powerful in its own right.
Liturgy guitarist and vocalist Hunter Hunt-Hendrix’s essay, ‘Transcendental Black Metal: A Vision of Apocalyptic Humanism’ (also a re-print), a piece which has received an astounding amount of interest and downright hatred (I’ll come back to why), makes this link between the old and the new explicit. It’s both a eulogy and a manifesto, an acknowledgement that the old style – with all its attendant encumbrances – is a sonic and aesthetic dead end that needed updating or else forever remain a historical curio. Hunt-Hendrix characterises the old style, epitomised by the Dark Throne album Transylvanian Hunger, as ‘Pure Black Metal’ which for him means “continuous open strumming and a continuous blast beat… no articulated fugues, no beginning, no end, no pauses, no dynamic range.” He focuses on the juddering upthrust of the blast beat, part of black metal’s DNA, and gave it a new focus and technique, calling it the burst beat – the fount of the new transcendental black metal, “the re-animation of the form of Black with a new soul, a soul full of chaos, frenzy and ecstasy. A specifically American joyful clamour which also a tremor.” Cod-Nietzschean aphorisms aside, Hunt-Hendrix was essentially right – the form did need a new injection of life; and what’s been happening in the US since, roughly, the release of Weakling’s Dead as Dreams in 2000, has been a revelation. Bands such Xasthur, Botanist, Wolves in the Throne Room, Ash Borer, Leviathan and Panopticon are doing pretty remarkable things with the form, pushing it and stretching it out to its limits to see what might be possible. There’s also a genuine connection to the land with several of these acts, and not in any dumb nationalistic sense; instead, particularly with WITTR and to a lesser extent, Botanist and Panopticon, the focus is on ecology and the wasting effect modernity has had on the landscape.
Wolves in the Throne Room by Alison Scarpulla
Hunt-Hendrix’s piece was originally part of a 2009 symposium on black metal called Hideous Gnosis (which also became a book with the same title), the first gathering of academics with an interest in the genre. It’s since become an annual event and there are various other symposiums and publications that examine black metal from a theoretical standpoint. I guess understandably it’s a relationship that doesn’t sit well with regular fans (particularly the hardline kvlt-ists) who see it as an appropriation, not to mention a cerebralising of something that is, at root, visceral and primal. The inclusion of the Hunt-Hendrix piece here (and, to a lesser extent, those of Nicola Masciandaro and Diarmuid Hester), alongside the grungier efforts of scene stalwarts such as Jon Kristiansen, do have a strange juxtaposing quality, but I don’t think its alienating. It just shows the breadth of interest; and, just as importantly, the breadth of possible responses.
That last point may be the life and death of black metal – as long as it maintains the sheer amount of imaginative real estate it currently occupies then you have to foresee a healthy future. And black metal is oddly empowering in its way, mirrored in the ersatz warlike stances of the musicians and fans, plus that odd convulsive clenching it engenders, the pulses of emotion and energy. Nick Richardson’s essay, probably the best in the book, suggests the the genre’s longevity might be down its mask-like qualities, its ability to be both hiding place and a kind of literal makeup, affective warpaint with which to face the world. So it is with this mask-like doubling quality that black metal is simultaneously a nakedly aggressive attitude and a primal, sylvan refuge; a place for the dark arts of self-discovery and the simple pleasures of the most grotesque of pantomimes.
Black metal and Spotify seem like odd bed partners, but so it goes. Below is a selection of some of black metal's finest, in a roughly chronological order. Enjoy.
Generally speaking, the British tend to have a curious relationship with their shared history and heritage, almost as if we fear it in some way, see something in that fierce mix of the sacred and the pagan that causes us to share in some collective misrembering and misunderstanding. When there are shared displays of ancient traditions they always seem to be veiled by a great blanket of protective whimsy and a distancing wink of self-knowing. In truth, our shared past isn’t about the gurning nonsense of ‘hey nonny no’ verse forms, or the clown poses of such dumb pageant fare of novelty folk bands. Instead it comes from an immediate and intimate knowledge of the land and of place, from our odd paganisation of the Christ myth, and from an individual and collective response to various personal and cultural woundings – from simple facts of unrequited loves and the personal tragedies of women lost in childbirth and men lost at sea, to the traumas of the Norman yoke, the enclosures act, the industrial revolution and the shattering losses of the First and Second World Wars. This is the well of our folk heritage.
Rob Young’s Electric Eden was originally going to be a study of the folk rock movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s and how it acted as a kind of vent for the strange vapours emanating from these (barely) concealed layers of shared history. But during the course of his investigations, it became clear that the (capital F) Folk movement was merely one manifestation among many of this move towards the visionary. In the end that word ‘visionary’ became key for Young and he noticed that the folk rock movement was essentially part of a much broader movement in British art and culture, encompassing the works of Blake, occultists such as John Dee and Aleister Crowley, the millenarian cults of the late 19th century and onwards and outwards, each using different methods to tap into and explore the possibilities inherent in the deep layers of history. This breadth of scope accounts for why Electric Eden feels like a portion of a much wider work, and why, at times, in its urge to encompass so much it can feel a bit like a baggy monster. It also accounts for why the book is such an important piece of work, and why it has leaves so much unanswered.
If Electric Eden makes anything clear it’s that if you look for a stable location from which to begin a history of folk music you’ll grasp at nothing but a drift of leaves and air: a study of folklore and, particularly, folk music is the study of a non-material art form, it exists as process, a process without a definable beginning and as such it is always already a study of nostalgia. Despite the best efforts of pedantic folklorists and archivists this isn’t a definite science (and this book is as much a history of them as it the phenomenology of music) – each iteration of a song or a ritual (re)creates the piece, the process anew. The object of study inevitably becomes about a method of interpretation, of the ways in which a particular age, or group of people or artists displays their findings, the results of their dowsings. As such, the book is very much about a form of decoding, or a study of style as much as anything else.
And what of that style for the visionaries of the 20th century? What Young locates at the heart of 20th century visionary music is what he calls a ‘form of imaginative time travel’: a simultaneous nostalgic urge towards a reconstructed golden age and a projection of this into the future, the green and pleasant land as some Utopian Eden – a placeless place of the imagination. In trying to place the genesis of this style he looks at the work of William Morris, a pioneering socialist and figurehead of the Arts and Crafts movements among other things, and composers such as Delius, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst. The link between these disparate artists isn’t arbitrary as they used to mix in the same circles, Holst and Vaughan Williams actually frequenting meetings at Morris’ house in Hammersmith. In all their works he notices both an engagement with the past, whether in the form of a retreat into some rural idyll in the case of Delius (a pattern he sees mirrored throughout the 20th century – see the various retreats of Peter Warlock, Fairport Convention, Traffic, Heron, Van Morrison etc), or a recourse to some mythic golden era with their compositions incorporating elements of old folk songs and focusing on natural and rural elements. Yet he also notes a Utopian impulse, in Vaughan Williams’ work and especially in William Morris’ novel of 1890 News from Nowhere, in which a time travelling protagonist is thrust into a future in which everyone leads a peaceful communist agrarian existence and revels in simple pleasures of nature and friendship – a future echo of some impossible Edenic past.
The other major contributing factor to this upsurge of interest in the folk heritage was the pioneering work of archivists such as Cecil Sharp and Lucy Broadwood. Sharp in particular had been driven by the derisory words of a visiting German folklorist Oscar Adolf Hermann Schmitz who claimed in 1904 that England was ‘a land without music’. Sharp made dozens of sorties into the countryside collecting and noting down literally hundreds of folk songs and versions of folk songs, with the idea that these should be taught in schools to re-introduce the idea of shared national heritage and inculcate a sense of national identity. In the light of what was happening in Europe at the time, it’s perhaps easy to see in Sharp’s ideals a kind of rabid nationalism, (especially given the BNPs predictably dull, lumpen appropriation of folk forms in recent times) but Sharp’s intentions weren’t necessarily right wing in their makeup, what he really wanted was to simply reconnect us to our heritage. If there was a downside to his work it’s that he sought to petrify the forms he captured, distilling the essence of each song into some impossible authentic original ‘version’, instead of recognising the essentially fluid nature of the form.
That this folk revival petered out, or returned underground, in the light of the monumental slaughter of the First and Second World Wars is perhaps not surprising. There was no need for the intrusions of past tragedies when such cataclysmic ones were occurring in the fields of Europe and beyond. When the revival came, it was very much in reaction to the social needs of those who had suffered most in the wars – the working classes. The likes of Ewan MacColl, AL Lloyd, Woody Guthrie and Peggy Seeger saw tremendous revolutionary potential in the folk songs of the rural and urban working classes, and the feeling in the folk clubs that grew up around these central figures was fervent and empowering. Young is great on how the likes of MacColl and Lloyd were both of the mainstream (with their BBC Radio shows) and yet subtly distanced from it, at least in the extreme left politics. From this distance it seems almost impossibly naïve that such movements were so powerful and so full of potential (indeed, Lloyd’s maxim that ‘poverty is the mother of folklore’ seems like the last flowering of some militant folk mindset in the UK) – that it might be possible to empower the working and rural classes through song. But the idea revolves around a raising of consciousness, the songs acting as a mode of realisation – of a shared past and of present economic conditions. We simply don’t have a way into that sense of living history. When did we turn away? Young sees the progenitor of this turn in the mighty figure of Bob Dylan who initially rode the wave of the protest movement, only to turn against the revolutionary dreams of his idol Woody Guthrie (whose guitar was a machine for killing fascists don’t forget) and instead became a brilliant creature of masks and costumes, prince of nihilism and hedonism. As Young puts it ‘the revolution was in the head’.
And it’s here that the book finds its focal point in the folk rock movement which following Dylan’s lead sought to bring electric instruments to a form which had previously remained acoustic. The likes of Shirley and Dolly Collins, The Young Tradition, The Watersons, Davy Graham, John Renbourn and Bert Jansch, all veterans of the folk club movement made popular by MacColl and his ilk, had laid the foundations for this turn towards the electric with their virtuoso reclamations of traditionals and imported folk songs. Like Holst and Vaughan Williams before them, some of these musicians both used ancient acoustic instruments (Shirley Collins was very much involved with the Early Music movement, with David Munrow as a kind of figurehead) and added Eastern forms to their renditions, both in terms of instrumentation and scales and modes. Young is brilliant at drawing together so many different strands here, and building towards the ‘Fairport moment’ where folk music got its first 4/4 beat, and his capsule biographies of the different figures are illuminating and beautifully written. But somehow it’s here that the book does seem to lose its way a little – and if anything its due to the sheer amount of research Young has carried out. Page after page of these short biographies follow, moving chronologically from the mid 60s to the slow death that occurred around the mid 70s; and though the text is always engaging, the pace which had been exemplary to this point does flag a little.
Essentially, what Young is doing here is carrying out a vast work of decoding – looking to the heart of a movement and trying to locate the temporal anomaly he opened up at the beginning of the text and the ways in which the folk rock movement evinced and displayed this urge towards the nostalgic and the Utopian. And the evidence is more than ample: from sleeve iconography to abstruse lyricisms he adds more and more evidence to back up his central thesis, which is amply proved, time and time again. It’s an astonishing work of archiving and investigation (Young has carried out an extraordinary amount of searching and listening for this book) and I doubt it can be improved upon in terms of depth of research and content, but this section can be a bit of a slog at times. It is lit up however, by some truly excellent thumbnail sketches – sketches that really merit longer expositions: Fairport, Nick Drake, John Martyn, Traffic, Dave and Toni Arthur, the various manifestations of Ashley Hutchings…
And it’s with the Ashley Hutching’s formed Steeleye Span that Young finds something of an end of an era. With their album (long after Hutchings had left) Rocket Cottage the Utopian/nostalgia trip reached some sort of dumb nadir. Here was a record that acted as a simulacrum of the visionary, a very British whimsical take on the magic inherent in the dowsing of the folk heritage. This was the visionary space driven back underground, awaiting the moment of the next coming,
In truth, the rest of the book is Young following his own obsessions a little, and drawing together varying bands and disparate movements – acts he sees as tapping into the visionary space in one way or another. Acts as diverse as Kate Bush, Talk Talk and Julian Cope are mentioned, not (capital F) folk music as such, but all loosely interested in the pastoral and possessed of a will to explore the nature of our relationship to the land and to our mythic (or otherwise) past. What I think the book lacks in the end is a useful coda. This is a book that feels as if it needed to be written, or has somehow found its time. I’m intrigued as to why. If it’s true that it’s when the time is out of joint that the ghosts will walk, then what is it about our own time that is causing this space to open up again? Young mentions the likes of Coil and Current 93, both visionary groups in their own way (and written about in depth in David Keenan’s equally monumental England’s Hidden Reverse), there is also mention of the Ghost Box label and Alasdair Roberts, but no unifying theory as to why there is such a diverse and burgeoning folk underground at present? Maybe it’s enough for Electric Eden to have left a space for that question to be asked; and it maybe that there’s another book in the subject waiting to be written; and if Young’s article on the Scottish folk scene in The Wire would suggest he’s the man for the job. For now it’s enough to ponder this latest rise and wonder if in truth, we simply cannot project into the future in a way that was possible as little as 25 years ago – the future is no longer what it was. Are we instead doomed to a sickness of mere nostalgia instead? A figment of our flattened sense of time, of our flattened culture? Do we have any visionaries to step forward?
A 57 track Spotify playlist to accompany Electric Eden
This review first appeared on The Line of Best Fit
Sea and Sardinia
Book: Sea and Sardinia
ISBN 13: 978-0141180762
'Travel seems to me a splendid lesson in disillusion' DH Lawrence in a letter to Mary Cannan.
DH Lawrence went to Sardinia in 1921. He spent 9 days on the island with his wife Frieda (the queen bee, or q-b); and they travelled by train from Cagliari in the South, up to Terranova in the North East to where they caught the ferry back to Sicily, their then home. On returning, Lawrence 'had nothing to do' so wrote the manuscript of Sea and Sardinia in 6 weeks - and all from memory, as he claimed not to have taken a single note whilst travelling. All of which makes it an odd read: it's both badly researched and self-obsessed and yet hugely revealing and lit from within by Lawrence's monumental and unsettled questing ego.
Lawrence and his missus had been beached in Sicily for some time; and from from his diaries and letters of the time it's evident that they felt somehow trapped by the weight of culture there - Sicily's very ancientness and superabundance of cultural artefacts weren't a balm but an irritant. He felt a sense of atrophy in the presence of so many things, and longed to step outside the great tunnel of history. And to Lawrence, Sardinia was just this - outside of history, forgotten and Other; and in it's ancient granite boulders and primitive way of life, Lawrence seemed to see a way back to some purer, older consciousness - the possibility of setting in motion what he called a 'process of rediscovering backwards...down the old ways of time.' It seems he also thought he might find in it a place to settle, to be free of the ceaseless urge towards motion - a place to be still.
And in many ways, despite this underlying theme of atavism, the book really is nothing more than a hymn to kinesis and the act of travel. Once you've absorbed the outright weirdness of Lawrence's obsession with the ancient and his hysterical (if consistent) responses to certain scenic landmarks (his gagging thrall in the face of Mt. Eryx is almost Hammer Horror in its camp hyperbole) then he becomes a great, if slightly unsettling travelling companion. The route he and Frieda take - a kind of anti-tourist route through the cragged mountainous heartlands that even today are remote and rarely visited - means the visions are filled with a certain elusive magic. His descriptions of his fellow travellers on the various trains he and the queen bee take, the peasants in their costumes that spark yet more atavistic reveries, the granite of the mountains which send him back to his beloved Cornwall - these are the things that stick in the mind.
They didn't settle in Sardinia, of course; and much of that which he sought in the ancient and the remote was what appalled and enraged him. In the end Sardinia became just another stopping off place, yet more proof of Lawrence's search for the impossible - that which would provide him with a sense of calm stasis. As Clive James has said of him, 'he was in search of...a significance this world does not supply and has never supplied'.
Finally then, whatever one makes of Lawrence, the real power of the book is in the wonder of his ecstatic prose. For epiphanic moments like this:
Wonderful to go out on a frozen road, to see the grass in shadow bluish with hoar-frost, to the grass in the yellow winter-sunrise beams melting and going cold-twinkly. Wonderful the bluish, cold air, and things standing up in the cold distance. After two southern winters, with roses blooming all the time, this bleakness and this touch of frost in the ringing morning goes to my soul like an intoxication. I am so glad on this lonely naked road, I don't know what to do with myself. I walk down in the shallow grassy ditches under the loose stone walls, I walk on the little ridge of glass, the little bank on which the wall is built, I cross the road across the frozen cow-droppings; and it is all so familiar to my feet, my very feet in contact, that I am wild as if I have made a discovery.
The Wild Places
Robert Macfarlane's The Wild Places has become something of a node for me in recent months - that special kind of book that seems to expand and fill space, throwing out ideas and experiences, prompting explorations of places and books. When I first finished it back in February I had an almost insatiable hunger to be outside; and I was driven to lookat things, look at them narrowly, trying to pierce some secret thrum beneath the surface of things. Like Annie Dillard, Macfarlane has the amazing ability to make you see again - partly because of some vicarious thrill at his own almost hallucinatory clarity of vision and ability to translate this into prose, but also because of the way you return to the source, re-examine things you realise you hadn't truly looked at in years, if ever.
The other function of this node has been how The Wild Places has directed my reading. Macfarlane includes a bibliography in the book (as he does in Mountains of The Mind) - an item of intense allure and repulsion for the likes of me. So I have found myself in dusty corners with obscure books (I got a copy of Ted Hughes Wodwo through the post just yesterday, evidently from the library of a heavy smoker if the yellowing pages and tobacco-stink are anything to go by), half-crazed on steepling hangars in the grey glow of dusk dredging up incantations from the journals of Gilbert White, and looking up into the crowns of great trees wondering at the secret lives of the canopy...
All of this is of course, by way of avoiding a review, to urge you to go out and get a copy, and of course to climb a tree and forget everything for a while. It's also to recommend two recent pieces which are loosely adapted from The Wild Places and available elsewhere. This, from the chapter on Holloways which he explores with the inimitable Roger Deakin, and also this short piece on freshwater swimming which is over at the very excellent Caught By The River.
Martin Strel swims. For miles. As of now he has swum the Danube, the Parana (South America's second longest river), the mighty Yangtze and the Amazon. Yes, the Amazon - all 3,278 miles of it. That was 30,000 strokes in every 10 hour day, and for 67 days without a day off. He wore a wet suit to protect himself against snakes, spiders, mosquitoes, poisonous insects and microbes, not to mention the candiru, a worm that has designs on swimming up your urethra and lodging itself there with miniature spikes. It is furiously territorial once attached and can only be removed with it's brand new home. He got third degree burns from the sun. He was smeared in vaseline to protect cuts and grazes and so to ward off hungry piranhas.
The obvious thing to scream is WHY? And Strel, like many extreme adventurers, seems largely unable to answer the question. In a way I guess the deed itself is at once a eloquent response to some greater question that resides inside the man himself. Something we can never be party to. There are two recent articles on Strel that are worth a look even if they rather lamely attempt to answer the very same question. A piece in the New York Times and this piece, in which Sam Wollaston swam a stretch of the Thames with Strel which was in the Guardian magazine a few weekends ago...
Book: Roger Deakin - Waterlog
ISBN 13: 978-0099282556
And speaking of swimming I recently finished Roger Deakin's marvellous book, Waterlog, which is an exploration of Britain via it's waterways - its ponds, lakes, canals, lochs, moats, the sea. In the book, Deakin, a profoundly ecologically minded man, and a passionate advocate of fresh and saltwater swimming, sets out from his moat in Suffolk to swim across Britain and gain what he calls a 'frog's eye view' of things.
In many ways, the book is like a mirror image of Jonathan Raban's Coasting in which Raban takes to the sea looking to gain some perspective on Britain from afar, and also in a quest for some wilderness, some escape. Yet if Raban is running from something (Raban is always running from something), Deakin's journey is less a flight away as much as a flight inward - both in terms of his immersal in the waterscape of the country and a gently melancholic exploration of himself and what he is capable of. While Deakin is often within shouting distance of a major town or city, what he finds whilst paddling along streams and rivers is that he is quite detached and in a strong sense wild. And whether he is floating above old field margins in the sea between Cornwall and the Scilly Isles or bravely exploring the epic waterways and ditches near the Denver Sluice in the Fens he is always seeing with a humming intensity, logging the landscape and in Keats' phrase 'taking part in the existence of things'. Whilst I may not exactly be stripping my keckers off and jumping in the Solent any time soon, what Waterlog does is make you look again, see the world with newly focused eyes which is the greatest praise you can give any form of art.
I came to Deakin through this beautiful elegy by Robert Macfarlane, which I read a couple of years ago soon after Deakin had passed away. I was captivated by the way Macfarlane had portrayed Deakin and the way in which he lived - his tumbledown house with its moat, its wild hedges and swallows in the chimney; his timber framed car with moss in the seat wells; his many outhouses with writing desks and rickety beds which he would routinely spend nights in. Deakin is like a living presence in Macfarlane's beautiful book, The Wild Places and in many ways, the book is very much about Deakin, or at least what he seemed to embody. It's such a shame that he passed away when he did because he seemed to come to writing late and if Waterlog (and his second book, the recently published Wildwood) is anything to go by he had so much to tell.
There is a piece by Deakin over at Open Democracy a teaser for Waterlog. I hope and pray every time I walk through the water meadows in Winchester to see a someone in trunks and goggles arrowing through the water, but as yet I remain unfulfilled. There is also links over at the very fine Caught By The River to two fabulous radio shows Deakin did for Radio 4 .
Lastly, Loudon Wainwright's The Swimming Song is so deeply enmeshed in Waterlog, and in Deakin's life (the song was played at his funeral) that I just had to include it here.
Download: Loudon Wainwright III - The Swimming Song
Mt. Everest, moon
Into Thin Air is an account of the disastrous Everest assault by various teams of climbers in the May of 1996 during which 15 lives were lost. Krakauer, a renowned climber himself, had joined Rob Hall's Adventure Consultant's team as a reporter for Outisde Magazine initially only to report from Base Camp on the team's progress and also to focus on the rampant commercialism which had turned Everest into part playground, part rubbish dump; but Krakauer eventually managed to get himself a place in the full climbing party and took the chance to fulfil what he admits was a lifetime's ambition to stand on the roof of the world.
The book, written as both an attempt at catharsis and as a more complete account than was possible in the already long article which had appeared in Outside magazine, is a troubled, troubling gaze into an abyss. Written from under a dense blanket of grief, Into Thin Air attempts to honestly portray what Krakauer saw and how events conspired to bring about the calamitous death toll: too many climbers, too much ambition, weather of unbelievable ferocity and the debilitating effects of the harshest of environments and extreme altitude all combined to create impossibly cataclysmic conditions. The narrative, divested of any of the joy of climbing or rapturous descriptions of the surroundings so common to much mountain literature, is a horribly compelling slow, graphic descent into a nightmare so horrific as to seem beyond the bounds of possibility. You leave it shattered.
The initial article and the book that followed created a deal of controversy on publication as many people (including relatives of those that died on the mountain) felt that Krakauer had harshly treated some and apportioned blame where none was merited. This was partly due to the amount of speculation Krakauer was driven to indulge in to fill in the gaps in his own story, but also because in many senses, beyond a certain point, Krakauer was the archetypal unreliable narrator: severely physically debilitated and half mad with hypoxic dementia could any of the recreations of the later stages of the climb be in any way considered reliable? The exchanges that followed are available on the Outisde website and are worth a look to get some idea of the controversy involved. Anatoli Boukreev, a guide on Scott Fischer's team whom Krakauer criticised for what he saw as went as negligent behaviour to clients he was supposed to be looking after, went far as to write a book in response - The Climb.
Mt. Everest, storm
Whatever you think of the integrity of Krakauer's account there is no denying its elemental power and there is a certain macabre allure to the whole thing - both in terms of the events on the mountain itself and in the threshings of a mind coping with the awful workings of trauma. It is a book that stays with you, and even now looking through the swathes of images of Everest available on line, in books, there is a screaming horror just below the surface of things, encased in the immensity of all that blackened rock and in the creakings of the deep, tense ice.
Mt. Everest at Summit Post
Radio interview with Krakauer at NPR
Salon piece on the controversy surrounding Into Thin Air
A Misguide to Anywhere
Book: A Mis-Guide to Anywhere
Publisher: Wrights & Sites
ISBN 13: 978-0954613013
In Wanderlust: A History of Walking, Rebecca Solnit calls walking ‘the most obvious and the most obscure thing in the world’; and it is: at once quotidian and functional yet – and more so now than ever before - oddly subversive and hidden. Suburban and particularly urban life doesn’t encourage walking, or at least it doesn’t encourage a certain kind of walking – any beyond the purely functional; we’re funnelled, corralled, caged by streets and architecture, driven by lines of force between our cattle trucks and our homes, dissuaded from nomadic revelries and haphazard acts of discovery. We don’t map, recreate, these spaces, they map, create us. So that’s why the alternative radical history of walking, that which is still coming into being, is one that relies on metaphors of disappearance and misplacement, alchemy and dream states – ancient methods of (re)discovery transposed into the most modern of settings. Learning to get lost so that you might find your, or another, way
The Wrights & Sites collective are a group of artists and pranksters based in Exeter who formed in 1997 and whose core remit is to produce multi-media site-specific explorations of space and place. They (they being Stephen Hodge, Simon Persighetti, Phil Smith and Cathy Turner) began by focusing much of their attention on their home town of Exeter, going as far as to produce a mutated guidebook to the city that suggested ‘a series of walks and points of observation and contemplation’ – a Mis-Guide, a distorted method of exploring the familiar. But this site-specificity had obvious limitations and the group wondered ‘towards the end of 2003…whether they might make a ‘Mis-Guide’ that deliberately set out to provide transferable ideas… in this case, the work will be completed by the walker and will become specific to its location only in the walking (we intend ‘walk’ to be interpreted as journey, hop, skip, jump, negotiate on wheels etc. as appropriate to circumstances and mood)’. Essentially what the group intended was a portable Mis-Guide with enough broad thematic content to enable it to be adapted to any city, town or suburb anywhere in the world.
The artefact they have produced (I’m loathe to call it a book because it longs to be separated from itself, torn apart and left in underpasses and dank stairwells) is firmly based in this alternative tradition of walking and travel. This Mis-Guide to Anywhere can be ‘used’ ‘anywhere you can walk slowly down the street without being shot by Western contractors. Anywhere you can reorganise buildings without permission. Anywhere you can stand still without being questioned. Anywhere you find abandoned beds. Anywhere the movie you always wanted to see is playing. Anywhere you legged it’ and as such is a portable manifesto for ‘disrupted walking’ is a ‘utopian project for the recasting of a bitter world’. The artefact itself is thin, ring bound; the polished pages adorned with soft-focus photographs, the familiar rendered unfamiliar, radical discontinuities; each of the 115 pages offers a different disruptive method of walking (Follow your shadow. Repeat at different times of the year, and at different distances from the equator) or a statement of fact (I walked for three hours in London between the Strand and Monument and I did not see one child). It seeks to make and return the cities and blank suburbs we inhabit into the labyrinths and playgrounds they are; and by enabling you to get lost in them to rediscover what you might not have known or simply what you might have forgotten. It’s a reclamation of a space that is already ours.
In terms of influence it is the Situationists who loom largest. Guy Debord had seen a map in a book called Paris et l’agglomeration parisienne in which the movements of a 16 year old girl had been mapped. Her life fell between the three points of a triangle – her home, her school and the home of her piano teacher – and there was little deviation outside this strict geometric cage. Debord was horrified and outraged ‘at the fact that anyone’s life could be so pathetically limited’. Thus the idea of the derive was developed a ‘technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances’ in which ‘one or more persons during a certain period’ is to ‘drop their relations, their work and all other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there’. In other words practice a freedom of movement otherwise discouraged by everyday living, and in doing so achieve a certain kind of mental state – a state that was at once exploratory and political but also playful and childlike, (indeed Debord compared it to the method of free association in psychoanalysis )- which could open up new areas of possibility.
The Situationist literature and mythology, saturated with metaphors of mixture, of recombination, involves the using of a kind of thaumaturgy of travel to rearrange place, subtle methods of navigation unlocking new possibilities and new layers of meaning – all modes of separating and splitting the horror of totality, an aspect of capitalist society that Debord abhorred. The Mis-Guide is very much part of this transcendent urge, using, in Jean-Cristophe Bailly’s memorable phrase, ‘the generative grammar of the legs’ to subvert this totality and to create narratives on the hoof.
City as dressing up box
The question that has to be asked of this artefact is: what do we do with it? In some respects it is hard to ascertain what level it is pitched at. Is this a manifesto, a subversive document designed to politicise and aggravate; or is it a pamphlet conceived with play in mind, gentle groups ambling across the cities of the world pointing out hitherto unexplored objects, monuments? Does it matter? I’m not so sure about its political aims, at least not on a macro level – there aren’t riots trapped between these glossy pages; but on a micro level there is a sense of a minor personal politics at work, concerned with what Michel de Certeau called ‘The Practice of Everyday Life’, the instilling of a rigorous sense of discovery that penetrates to the core of the seemingly most banal and obvious aspects of day to day life. There is, in a sense, a liberatory knowledge in simply paying attention to what you do most often, and this slim volume provides myriad ways of doing just that. What intrigues me - and it’s what it doesn’t tell me – is what to do next
Some Radical Walking Resources
Wright's & Sites 'A Manifesto for a New Walking Culture: Dealing with the City'
Guy Debord's 'Theory of the Derive'
Debord's 'Introduction to A Critique of Urban Geography'
Ivan Chtcheglov's 'Formulary for a New Urbanism'
Henry David Thoreau's 'Walking'
An excerpt from Sadie Plant's 'The most radical gesture: The Situationist International in a postmodern age'
Mary Zourzani's 'Walking with the Surrealists'
Donna Landry 'Radical Walking'
The Arcades Project Project